The Rationale of Psychoanalytical Literary Criticism • If psychoanalysis can help us better understand human behaviour, then it must certainly be able to help us understand literary texts, which are about human behaviour • Psychoanalytical Criticism shows how human behavior is relevant to our experience of literature
Freud’s Theories: The Origins of the Unconscious • The goal of psychoanalysis is to help us resolve our psychological problems (called disorders or dysfunctions) • Psychoanalysts focus on correcting patterns of behaviour that are destructive • One of Freud’s most radical insights was the notion that human beings are motivated by unconscious desires, fears, needs, and conflicts
What is the Unconscious Mind? • The unconscious is the storehouse of those painful experiences and emotions, wounds, fears, guilty desires, and unresolved conflicts we do not want to know about • We develop our unconscious mind at a very young age through the act of repression • Repression is the expunging of the conscious mind of all our unhappy psychological events • Our unhappy memories do not disappear in the unconscious mind; rather, they exist as a dynamic entity that influences our behaviour
Family Conflicts • The Oedipus Complex: young boys between the ages of 3-6 develop a sexual attachment to their mothers. The young boy competes with his father for his mother’s attention until he passes through the castration complex, which is when he abandons his desire for his mother out of fear of castration by his father. • The Electra Complex: young girls compete with their mothers for the affection of their fathers. • Freud believed all children must successfully pass through these stages in order to develop normally. Freud also believed that a child’s moral sensibility and conscious appear for the first time during this stage.
Dreams • Our defense mechanisms do not operate in the same way while we are asleep as they do when we are awake. This is why psychoanalysts are so interested in dream analysis • When we are asleep, the unconscious mind is free to express itself and it does so in the form of dreams • Dream displacement: when we use a “safe” person, event, or object as a “stand-in” to represent a more threatening person, event, or object. • For example, dreaming about a child almost always reveals something about our feelings toward ourselves, toward the child that is still within us and that is probably still wounded in some way.
The Meaning of Death • Death is a difficult subject to analyze, often because we have a tendency to treat death as an abstraction. • By treating death as an abstraction, we can theorize about it without feeling its force too intimately because its force is much too frightening. • Freud theorized that death is a biological drive which he referred to as the “death drive” • The “death drive” theory accounted for the alarming degree of self-destructive behaviour Freud observed in individuals • Our fear of death is closely tied to our fear of being alone, our fear of abandonment, and our fear of intimacy
The Meaning of Sexuality • Sexual behavior is a product of our culture because our culture sets down the rules of proper sexual conduct and the definitions of normal/abnormal sexual behaviour • Society’s rules and definitions concerning sexuality form a large part of our superego. The word superego implies feeling guilty (even though some of the time we shouldn’t) because we are socially programmed to feel guilty when we break a social value (pre-marital sex, for example).
The Meaning of Sexuality • The superego is in direct opposition to the id, the psychological reservoir of our instincts and libido. The id is devoted to gratifying all our prohibited desires (sex, power, amusement, food, etc.) • Because the id contains desires regulated or forbidden by social convention, the superego determines which desires the id will contain • The ego plays referee between the id and the superego; it is the product of the conflict we feel between what we desire and what society tells us we cannot have.
How to Read a Text using Psychoanalysis • The job of the psychoanalytical critic is to see which concepts are operating in the text that will yield a meaningful psychoanalytic interpretation. For example: • You might focus on the work’s representation of oedipal dynamic of family dynamics in general • You might focus on what work tells us about human beings’ psychological relationship to death or sexuality • You might focus on how the narrator’s unconscious problems keep appearing over the course of the story.
Analyze the characters • A great way to practice psychoanalytical criticism is to analyze the behaviour of the characters in the text. • Often the characters’ behaviour represents the psychological experience of the author or people in general. • A good example is the psychoanalytical reading of Hamlet
An important thing to keep in mind: • To some extent, all creative works are a product of the author’s conscious and/or unconscious mind • Any human production that involves images, that seems to have narrative content, an audience or author can be interpreted using psychoanalytic tools
Some Questions Psychoanalytic Critics Ask about Literary Texts • What unconscious motives are operating in the main characters? What is being repressed? Remember that the unconscious mind consists of repressed wounds, fears, unresolved conflicts, and guilty desires • Is it possible to relate a character’s patterns of adult behaviour to early experiences in the family (as represented in the story)? What do these behaviour patterns and family dynamics reveal?
Some Questions Psychoanalytic Critics Ask about Literary Texts • How can characters’ behaviour, narrative events, and/or images be explained in terms of regression, projection, fear of or fascination with death or sexuality?
I know you’re sick of this book… What’s with the recurrent images of an apple? What does the apple symbolize? Why is a girl holding the apple? What does this say about the author’s repressed desires? What about the apple is sexual? Does the image of an apple have any religious meaning?
Some Questions Psychoanalytic Critics Ask about Literary Texts • In what ways can we view a literary work as a dream? How might recurrent or striking dream symbols reveal the ways in which the narrator/author is projecting his unconscious desires, fears, wounds, or unresolved conflicts onto other characters or the events portrayed? • Look for symbols relevant to death and sexuality (yonic and phallic symbols)
Some Questions Psychoanalytic Critics Ask about Literary Texts • What might a given interpretation of a literary work suggest about the psychological motives of the reader? For example, if a group of critics see Hamlet as a devoted son while underplaying his contribution to the family dysfunction, what might that say about the repressive tendencies of that group of critics? Maybe acknowledging Hamlet’s faults as a bad son and boyfriend forces the reader to acknowledge similar faults in his/her own relationships?